At 101, Joe King was going through his things at Baillie House recently, looking for his uniform.
He had been in the line of fire in the Battle of Britain, had a 17-year-military career, helped found a Legion in B.C., and has been one of the last Second World War veterans to visit the cenotaph ceremonies in Maple Ridge.
Joe’s daughter Jennifer King said her dad wasn’t happy to learn Remembrance Day ceremonies would be called off this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It has already struck close to home for him, with two cases at Baillie House.
“He was very disappointed they were not able to go this year,” said Jennifer. “He was fussing because he couldn’t find his beret and white gloves.”
Military service is in his blood.
He isn’t allowed visitors at Baillie House at the moment, and doesn’t pick up his phone. But Jennifer and her brother Peter remember his stories.
Joe King was born in 1919, raised near London, and when he was about 19 years of age he joined the army. When he phoned his parent’s store to tell his mom he had enlisted, it was the first he had ever used a phone.
England joined the war against Germany in 1939, after the invasion of Poland, and the air war that was the Battle of Britain began soon after. Joe was on an anti-aircraft gun, in charge of the crew.
He had already been in the military, and men with that extra training and experience rose through the ranks quickly during war time.
Joe told a story about watching planes fighting in the skies, and not being able to shoot, because in the chaos he couldn’t tell Royal Air Force from Luftwaffe – friends from foes.
He saw machine gun “stitching” from a plane tearing up a line of earth in front of him.
“He took one step to the side and the bullets went right beside him,” said Peter.
That’s how close he came to the end. But he had a long life ahead of him.
There were not so many close calls for him, through his many travels. King somehow arrived in places and fighting stopped, and he left just before the fighting began.
“He always said ‘My mother must have been really praying for me,’” Jennifer recalled.
Joe and his gun crew were was stationed at Buckingham Palace, and met Elizabeth II, before she became queen, at a Christmas party for the troops.
He was transferred to India, where he became a commissioned officer. He was part of a mission to have a convoy rescue British artillery in Burma before it was overrun by advancing Japanese troops. Peter said he had the pleasure of seeing the mission his father had told him about as a television documentary.
After the war, Joe continue as an officer in the British military, first serving in the Korean War, then getting stationed in Egypt, and then in post-war Germany, where he met his wife, Sarah.
He ran camps of 2,000 men, and his job was to keep them running with military efficiency.
Peter remembers he had a saying: “Loyalty up, loyalty down.” He meant that if he wanted the men under him to be loyal, he had to show them his allegiance first.
When Sarah became pregnant with Jennifer, the camp commander found the nearest obstetrician was 60 km away down a gravel road. The enlisted men whose wives were pregnant would have to make the trip in a troop transport.
Capt. King decided that wouldn’t do. He ordered any soldier whose wife was pregnant should take her to the doctor in his officer’s car. There were 2,000 men, and many had married, so often he had to ride in troop transports.
“He rode to camp laughing and joking with the soldiers,” recounted Peter.
The familiarity with the troops didn’t always meet with the approval of the uppity ups.
“He said he was hated by the generals, but loved by the soldiers.”
Joe’s brother, Vince, had been in the air force, and during the war was stationed in Canada, training fighter pilots. He loved Canada, applied to return there as soon as he could, and talked his brother into emigrating.
Peter explained how England still had a strong class system at the time, and the King boys preferred the lifestyle of Canada – where everyone was middle class.
The brothers moved to Kitimat, and Joe got a job with Alcan as a purchasing agent. Joe and Vince were charter members of the Kitimat legion, and Joe’s family always attended Remembrance Day ceremonies.
His wife passed away, and he moved to the Lower Mainland, and still marched in the Nov. 11 parades into his 90s.
At the age of 94 he fell getting off a bus and broke his hip.
“He was stubborn. He insisted he could take transit,” said Jennifer.
Now he’s in a wheelchair, but still goes.
He gets weekly visits from Roger Welch, who works with veterans on behalf of the Maple Ridge legion.
“He’s really a fascinating guy,” said Welch. “He’s one of those guys who still gets up and puts on a jacket and tie every day.”
On his 100th birthday, King had a potluck lunch from his church, received a Papal blessing, a message from the Governor General, as well as a second greeting from Queen Elizabeth.
King tells a lot of stories about his time as a professional soldier.
“There are not too many left who fought for us,” said Welch, and he enjoys listening.
“It’s about all you can get him to talk about these day,” Welch recounted. And “toward the end of the conversation, he has a tear in his eye.”